High school students all across Newark walked out of their schools and into the streets as part of a national protest against gun violence, calling on politicians, parents, and the general population to push for real change in the wake of the Parkland shootings.
"Thoughts and prayers and not enough," chanted the entire 2,000-strong school population of students, teachers and administrators from East Side High School in Newark's Ironbound section who gathered across the street in Independence Park, one of several demonstrations at high schools in New Jersey's largest city. "This is about all of our lives."
The spark for the nationwide walkout against gun violence is the 17 lives lost last month during a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneham High School in Parkland, Florida. Students across the country gathered outside for at least 17 minutes, one minute for each of the students killed. In the four weeks since the Valentine's Day murders, the pain has become political as the survivors started a movement that has generated both national notice and pressure on legislators to take significant measures to pass stricter gun laws.
Student leaders have listed three primary demands for Congress: ban assault weapons; mandate universal background checks before gun sales; and pass a gun violence restraining order law that would permit courts to disarm people who display warning signs of violent behavior.
East Side High School senior Gina Matos, who serves at the student representative on the Newark school board, reiterated these national demands in a local context.
"We live in the inner city, and we're all aware that gun violence is an issue," said Matos, 18. "It affects our families, and it affects the students."
"Just last year, we lost a student to gun violence," said Catuxa Tato, 18, an East Side High School senior. "It affects us every day."
Dr. Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School, pointed to the district-wide policy that allowed students to participate in the walkout without worrying about punishment.
"I'm proud of our kids. They're standing up for what they believe is right," Santos said. "They're standing up for change."
The potential politicization of a generation was evident among students at the East Side protest. Some students held up signs criticizing the National Rifle Association (NRA), seen by critics as standing in the way of gun law reform.
Matos made the case that America's high school students are ready to do what they feel needs to be done to stem the tide of rising gun violence.
"There are a lot of politicians that say that they shouldn't be listening to us, that we're just children, but we're not," Matos said. "We know what's going on. We can see it ourselves. Being here, it shows that we're woke. It's our time to make a difference."